Superstition is wiping out the world’s rare rhino populations
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Superstition is wiping out the world’s rare rhino populations

Due to the trafficking of rhinoceros horn, the past 40 years have seen global populations of the giant ungulate plummet by over 90 percent.

Here are some disturbing statistics:

  • Sumatran rhinos are extinct in Malaysia, with less than 100 left in Indonesia.
  • Javan rhinos number only around 50 individuals.
  • There are 4 northern white rhinos in the world, only one of which is male.
  • No more rhinoceros live in Mozambique.

Why? Because of the widespread belief in traditional medicine.

Folk medicine, particularly Traditional Chinese Medicine, instills rhinoceros horn with magical medicinal benefits from treating coughs to curing cancer. Naturally, these false beliefs are propagated by those who financially benefit from the illegal trafficking and selling of rhino horn, as is the case with other exotic animal parts, including tiger penis and bear gall bladder.

A most exploitative business

The human victims are the consumers of powdered rhino horn — especially cancer sufferers — who spend exorbitant amounts on the illegally procured products and receive no benefit, even forsaking effective treatment for quackery. Other human casualties are poachers, usually poor and desperate for income, who resort to dangerous methods to hunt rhinos, sometimes paying with their lives. Be sure that the henchmen who do the riskiest and dirtiest work do not receive most of the profits of this illegal business.

Perhaps tradition and magic are more appealing ways to cure disease and enhance one’s sex life than science. After all, if it were possible, wouldn’t you rather imbibe some supernatural rhino horn than go through the horrors of chemotherapy to rid your body of evil cancer? I know I would.

However, rhino horn, which is made of the same stuff as your fingernails, does nothing of the sort. It’s a maddeningly tragic fact that despite campaigns to educate the public in countries like China and Vietnam, and ever more sophisticated and expensive poaching-prevention measures in source countries like India and South Africa, the business of killing rhinos for their horns is booming.

. . . it’s a fact that all five species of rhino are charging pell-mell towards extinction because of an idea that’s proven bollocks. It’s also a fact that some great minds and serious money are lining up in the attempt to stop it. And here’s the cream of the jest: they’re losing. South Africa provides the most reliable and the most regularly quoted stats. In 2007 they lost 13 rhinos to illegal poaching. Last year they lost 1,215. Those figures are reflected elsewhere in Africa: it’s an increase of 9,000 per cent. At this rate we’ll be out of rhinos in about 20 years.

—Simon Barnes in the Spectator


Angalifu (now deceased), a male Northern White Rhinoceros at San Diego Wild Animal Park. Pic: Public Domain

Is rhino conservation a losing battle?

While armed guards watch over Sudan, the world’s last remaining northern white rhino, and India ups its game with an anti-poaching drone program, the world’s zoos become retirement homes for the last members of soon-to-be-extinct rhino species.

Nature alone is troublesome enough for rhinos, as flooding in northeastern India is currently demonstrating. Add to that increasingly wealthy Vietnam and China — where expensive TCM “cures” can function like status symbols for superstitious consumers — and the situation may seem hopeless.

Of course many people in the East and Southeast Asian countries where exotic animal parts end up are educated, compassionate and concerned. They know the remedies are bogus and are doing more than their bit to stop the slaughter of rhinos. Unfortunately, their efforts, coupled with those of of global conservation groups and anti-poaching programs, may be too little too late.